I loved A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon, so I was excited to see Anthony Marra had written another one. I actually finished this book like two years ago but then forgot to write a review? So I did a re-read to make my HALF CANNONBALL WOOOOO! I haven’t met my Cannonball goal since 2015, so I am just gonna go have some champagne now thanks.
Anyway, this is a great book! I love Marra’s writing style–he’s the kind of writer that makes me think, yes, yes, this is exactly why I read fiction. This book is a mixtape of short stories and vignettes, painstakingly threaded together with characters, objects, and an actual mixtape. It’s a matryoshka of a story, with recurring themes of love and hope and family and loss and Soviet absurdity and, all meticulously recorded and set in dismal corners of Russia. Starting in 1937, Marra guides is through the breakup of the USSR to a future in space, or adjacent to space…or something. It’s beautiful and brilliant, heartfelt, heartbreaking.
I’ll just give you a small taste: in the first story, in 1937, a Soviet art censor airbrushes a ballerina out of a photograph. The censor is obliged to remove his own brother’s face from photos, due to his brother’s religious beliefs. But, obsessively, he paints his brother’s face in the background of every photo he alters. Later, in 1913 Siberia, the ballerina’s granddaughter. Later, someone notices the brother who appears and appears in old photographs. Later, in an art gallery, a painting of a field that is a leitmotif throughout the whole novel. This makes the connections sound obvious; they aren’t. At least not at first. This is a book that definitely benefitted from a second read, one that wasn’t broken up into 10 minute increments.
Marra’s writing is impeccable. I never felt lost or burdened by “literature-ness”, although I think in another’s’ hands it might come across as pretentious. Although it’s billed as a collection of short stories, I don’t think it really is–when I think about it now, I think about it as a novel. This is one I’ve given to friends, and I will continue to do so in the future. I just loved it.